Afro Modern & Dissident Surrealism

Beyond art history, the task of examining many of racist constructs in visual history has been taken up by contemporary artists of the Diaspora who have been prepared to explore the fictions and frictions around the black body to understand what and how they signify. They have embraced the stereotypes of blackness in their own work in order to dismantle them from the inside out using what Stuart Hall has theorized as ‘the turn’ – a strategy that calls for a risky journey into the morass of their origins.1 He describes how these artists are using the black body as a moving signifier – first, as an object of visibility which can at last be ‘seen’; then as a foreign body, trespassing into unexpected and tabooed locations; then as the site of an excavation. This is the body as a space or canvas, on which to conduct an exploration into the inner landscapes of black subjectivity; the body, also, as a point of convergence for the materialization of intersecting planes of difference – the gendered body, the sexual body, the body as subject, rather than simply the object of looking and desire.” 2

This strategy obviously has its ironies, not the least is that the black diaspora’s post-modern artists are coming to a representation of blackness via surrealism using its strategies of inversion and subversion. They deploy Bataille type methods to the similar end of shocking contemporary sensibilities towards new moments of crisis and recognition; think for instance about the, big lips and bulging eyes and golliwogs in Sonia Boyce’s Tarzan to Rambo (1987) or consider the intersection of beautiful black bodies with flora and masks in the poignant work of Rotimi-Fani Kayode 3. Sometimes these interventions speak to a particular ‘moment’ that can be healed by their re-presentation, as in Ellen Gallagher’s squirly curls and wigs for DeLuxe (2004-5); but sometimes the wounds of mis-representation are still too raw for that not to register laughter as a sign of avoidance, disgust or self-hate, as with the elephant dung and use of parody in Chris Ofili’s Captain Shit (1997).


In so many different ways these diaspora artists make the very precarious journey into the belly of the beast to tease out new meanings within their work. Sometimes, like the characters in a minstrel show, they are predictable and pathetic in the way they unwittingly repeat the same abject history and racial discourse, but sometimes that recovery is complete so that we cannot think of one stereotype without its subversive other, remember Aunt Jemima’s tight grip on a hand-grenade in Betty Saar’s Imitation of Life (1973), proving that it is possible to escape the white shadows of worn western parody.


The multiplicity of forms and their numerous meanings, demonstrate the way artists of the African diaspora are filling the painful gaps once inhabited by caricatures and cuckolds with their own narratives and bodies of meaning. No longer the static and fixed objects of avant-garde scrutiny and desire, they are swimming in the margins, moving, morphing, re-creating and changing, changing, changing.

1 Stuart Hall, “Negotiating Caribbean Identity”, New Left Review, 1/209, January-February, 1995

2 Hall, p. 20

3 Rotimi Fani Kayodi, Adebiyi, 122 x 122cm edition of 10, Fuji Crystal Archive print with a matt finish,1989